Syria's Subversive Soap Operas

What effects might television dramas have on democratic revolution?

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Actor Qusai Khouli plays a resident of Damascus's slums in Birth from the Loins / Clacket Productions

I knew I was hooked on Syrian soap operas, or musalselat, the first time I saw "Gazelles in a Forest of Wolves." The 30-episode series, directed by Rasha Sharbatji in 2006, followed the antics of a spoiled, rich megalomaniac named Samir, played by actor Qusai Khouli. Samir's abusive actions toward his university friends go unchecked since his father occupies a high-level position in the Syrian government, which makes people afraid of crossing their abuser. Samir torments friends and enemies alike in the worst possible ways, until the day one of his victims gets fed up. With Samir in the passenger seat of her car, Samir's latest female conquest intentionally drives off the side of Damascus's Mount Qassiyoun, killing herself and leaving Samir disfigured.

The series was a clear condemnation of the hypocrisy of the Syrian upper class and gross abuses of power at a level that the audience could easily relate to and the censors could begrudgingly let pass. When anti-regime demonstrations broke out in Syria in March 2011, I remembered a quote from Samir:

You can have your revolutions, your socialism, and your rights - do whatever it is that you do. But in the end, everything will return to its natural state. It will always hold true: the son of the Pasha remains the son of the Pasha and the son of the maid will remain the son of the maid.

Even though this musalsel premiered in 2006, young Syrians were still talking about it three years later when it was eventually recommended to me. Samir was the prototypical ibn al-masool, or son of an authority figure, a true-to-life cliché many Syrians have come to know and revile through rumors of so-and-so's son's misbehavior. In this scene, Samir is at a nightclub and has his assistant order the DJ to play a better song. A turf war comes to a head between Samir and another club-goer, ending with Samir pulling out his gun and shooting up the nightclub. While this series didn't directly criticize authoritarian governments, it was shocking in its frank treatment of corruption - even if it was at the micro-level.

Around the same time the anti-regime demonstrations began in Syria this year, Syrian directors were on the verge of wrapping up several months of filming on the latest batch of musalselat. Most musalselat are bundled into about 30 episodes, which translates to one episode for each night of Ramadan - the month-long period of fasting in which these series are premiered. As The Atlantic reported last year, musalselat are considered a higher art form, not merely vapid soap operas. Syrian musalselat have become one of the country's most prized exports, with Gulf countries paying top-dollar for melodramatic soaps starring all Syrian casts and shot on location in Damascus. But this year is different.

With the first day of Ramadan falling on August 1 and demonstrations increasing in size, some have called for a boycott of Syrian musalselat and others have formed a blacklist of Syrian actors and writers who had been vocal in their support for the regime. Despite predictions of Syrian drama not finding any buyers, about 20 musalselat will air on a range of Arab satellite stations this Ramadan, which is roughly on par with the number of Egyptian series running this year. This hardly compares to the approximately 60 Syrian and 70 Egyptian dramas filmed last Ramadan, but some have argued that fewer musalselat means better quality.

As Syrian families gather around televisions this Ramadan and indulge in this latest round of melodrama, we can only wonder how this season's plotlines will speak to a new Syrian reality, one that seems to hold an unprecedented potential for political upheaval. To be sure, Syrian drama is not where you go for explicit critiques of hereditary autocracy. Even though some of the best-written musalselat in recent years have dealt openly with police abuse, rape, poverty, honor crimes - you name it - the majority of Syrian drama is the light-hearted escapism that you can find on any television channel in the world.

This latest round of musalselat were conceived and written before the revolts in Egypt, Tunisia, and now, Syria, but they will be received in a Syrian reality that even the most fantastical musalsel writer couldn't have foreseen six months ago. For decades, musalselat have avoided (or been censored so as to avoid) overt discussions of Syrian politics, but as seen with Sharbatji's "Gazelles in a Forest of Wolves," there can be just enough wiggle room to issue critiques of what many have long perceived to be the injustices in daily Syrian life.

Which path will this year's musalsalet take? Will they be ill-poised to accommodate the changing political sensibilities of many Syrians? Or will they afford the average family with a break from the "chaos" in the streets?

Of the 20 Syrian musalselat premiering this year, the majority are social dramas, with many newspapers noting a decline in the number of historical dramas produced. In between the social and historical dramas are the popular sketch comedy shows and biographical series. Now, a look at this year's most-awaited Syrian musalselat:

Wilada min al-Khasira (Birth from the Loins): Possibly the most talked about Syrian drama this year is the latest from director Rasha Sharbatji. Like most of Sharbatji's works, "Wilada" is set in the ashwayiat, or slums, of Damascus and follows the lives of its poor residents as they deal with daily hardships of poverty and corruption. Three female characters of different social classes cross paths in an illegal abortion clinic, while one of the male leads owns a clothing factory and engages in shady business deals and routine corruption. Yet the most potentially controversial character is the aggressive army colonel who "brutalizes" people. Sharbatji said that, "the censors had some objections that we dealt with flexibly."

Even though Sharbatji describes her dramas as "immersed in the reality of the street," she has remained somewhat removed from demonstrations. A recent report noted that after the arrest of several protesting Syrian actors and writers in Damascus, she expressed her "solidarity" with those arrested on her Facebook wall.

Al-Sirab (Mirage): Prolific Syrian director Marwan Barakat pairs up with his choice lead actor Bisam Kusa in a drama that is also set in the slums of Damascus. Kusa plays a worker in a chicken slaughterhouse who, by the looks of the promo, is totally miserable. The talented actress Salafa Muammar plays what appears to be a crazed co-worker of Kusa in the slaughterhouse, but her persona is a bit too outrageous to not be hilarious. The original title of the drama was "Bird Flu," so that kind of gives away the "social catastrophe" that promotional material has promised.

Barakat's dramas have been a fixture in the social genre, but he rarely pushes the envelope like his counterpart Sharbatji. For example, in Barakat's "Ibna' al-Qahr" or "Sons of Defeat," he depicts one youth's fall from well-behaved student to murderous criminal after his parents divorce and his mother remarries a younger man. The moral arbiter of the tale was a do-no-wrong government official whose straight attitude helps keep the family together.*

While "Mirage" will certainly be entertaining, it will probably not provide any room for subversive interpretations.

Tab al-Mishwar (A Tiring Journey): Director Saif Sebeai' brings us back to the safe corridors of Damascus's middle class, focusing on inter-generational conflicts and exposing social hypocrisies. The promo depicts scientists discussing science things in their labs, prompting me to think that this musalsel will pit religion versus reason, with religion triumphing. One of the drama's protagonists is Abbas al-Nouri, an actor who has been outspoken as a "moderate" voice for the regime. This tone has landed him on blacklists of Syrian activists, but made him a very popular staple at government-sponsored "dialogues." Recently, Nouri, along with elite actors Bisam Kusa, Mona Wasif, and Salafa Fawakhiri (the female protagonist in "al-Wilada") participated in one of these dialogues and praised government efforts to bring dissenting parties together.

This musalsel is probably the tamest of the bunch, but there was one slightly provocative quote in the promo, which taken entirely out of context might mean something: "I'm also an aware intellectual and I gave you your freedom, but freedom alone is not enough."

Melh al-Haya (Salt of Life): This series is one in a handful of historical Syrian dramas premiering this Ramadan. Most of the other dramas stick to the early 20th century or early 19th century, but "Salt of Life" breaks the mold with a look at Damascus life throughout the 1940s until Syria's unification with Egypt in 1958. The director even notes that the French occupation will not be a central focus of the show, but instead, just in the background. A more interesting storyline in this musalsel is the unfolding drama of a Syrian who shoots a French soldier and is then exiled to French Guiana only to make a heroic escape.

Many Syrian artists expressed frustration over the rise of historical drama ushered in with the popular "Bab al-Hara" (The Neighborhood Gate) series that portrayed life in Damascus under the French occupation. One drama editor said, "Bab al-Hara started a dangerous trend in Syrian drama.  Rather than bringing us progress, these kinds of old city series inspire us to move backward. Bab al-Hara, for example, advocates patriarchy and women's subordination, as well religious extremism." With that in mind, many writers and directors view Syrian drama within the framework of "entertainment-education," hoping that the moral lessons of the series will help society "progress."

If revolutionary demonstrations in Syria usher in a new era of political and social change, then the musalselat of 2011 might be looked back on as the last dramas that had to issue guarded social critiques. On the other hand, with so many Gulf companies buying up Syrian dramas and censoring them for domestic consumption, it is likely that the obstacles to musalselat production will keep on going.

*This post originally stated "The moral arbiter of the tale was a do-no-wrong army official..." We regret the error.